It’s About Quality, Not Victory

What follows is an actual conversation between me and a dear friend who is also an administrative colleague. His name has not been changed, since he is guilty and cannot be protected like the innocent.

Setting: About four o’clock on a wintry afternoon in Vice-Principal Jim’s office in NJ. The office’s aged, mint green walls are adorned with motivational quotes from great NFL, NBA, and MLB coaches.

ME: “So Jim, what do you think the Superintendent is going to say about the proposed change to the school’s grade scale?”

JIM: “You know what, whatever gets the kids working harder. I just think the weighting of AP and Honors courses is going to throw off the ranking system.”

ME: “Good. The ranking thing should go. We’re not about competition – we’re about learning. If it were up to me, I’d do away with grades, scales, ranking… all that.”

JIM: “You’re nuts! We have to keep ranks and grades. How else do we know who is doing better or well in a subject? And we rank to see who is the best in the class. Besides, competition is good for kids. They have to compete to get into college.”

ME: “So you’re saying that it’s okay to have a number one student? That means, Jim, that to have a number one, there must be a number two, then a three, and so on. You’re saying it’s okay to have kids at number 100? We shouldn’t have them compete, we should have them collaborate and learn. The weak helped by the strong. Competition is for the field, not the classroom.”

JIM: “That’s why I’ll never work for you at a school you run.”

I love Jim. He’s an honest man, a good father, a great mentor for lost adolescents. But he’s dead wrong about competition in the schoolhouse. To make him upset and aggravated, I sometimes use facts and ideas from Alfie Kohn to combat his arguments. Jim listens, but thinks I am too rebellious for my own good.

One article from Mr. Kohn that I use frequently to argue my point about the need to eliminate competition from the schoolhouse is entitled “Against “Competitiveness”: Why Good Teachers Aren’t Thinking About the Global Economy”. It appeared in the September 19, 2007 edition of Education Week.

Janet Swenson at Michigan State University points out that “we’ll all benefit from the best education we can provide to every child on the face of this planet. Do you care if it’s a child in Africa who finds a cure for cancer rather than a child in your country?” she asks.

Bravo Ms. Swenson. When NCLB was proudly announced as the law of the land, schoolhouses became battlegrounds; each school district against another, each factor grouping against another, each state against another – which really only translates into each child against the other. NCLB may have “raised the bar” (whatever that means), but it also made schools places of gaming, not learning.

And now for my close-to-home moment. Try not to gag or vomit on your keyboard when you read the comments of one Dr. Larrie Reynolds, Superintendent of NJ’s Pequannock Schools. Dr. Reynolds is a newly hired Superintendent from the great state of Texas (known for its educational leadership, of course). Mr. Reynolds was featured in the February 18 Bergen Record. The title of the story: “Pequannock Goes For Gold“. Here are some excerpts.

The Gold Academy will be the most rigorous and selective program the high school has to offer. It’s more selective than honors classes, which require only a teacher’s recommendation.

It was designed to address concerns that some of the best students leave the district after middle school for private schools.

“That is why our high school scores are not very good, or not as good as they should be,” Reynolds said.

Wait, there’s more…

He heard that 22 eighth-graders were considering leaving the district in the next school year. In the last four years, 64 students, 10 percent of the high school enrollment, left for private schools.

“If those 64 students were still in our high school, how would our high school have been different?” Reynolds said.

“I suspect we would have had better achievement results, higher SAT scores, we’d have better results in the classrooms,” he said. “We would have had a better school.”

He ends his unbelievable comments with this:

“If we can celebrate and recognize and honor talent on the athletic field, then public schools had better be willing to do the same thing on the academic field,” Reynolds said. “In many ways, it’s more important.”

Rumor has it that if you call Pequannock Schools, you will be greeted by the salutation “Pequannock Schools, striving to be number one…”. Apparently, this is what anyone who answers a phone in Pequannock is ordered, by Dr. Reynolds, to say.

So what do we do about ranking and competition in classrooms, in schools, in districts, in states, in our country? Do we just ignore it and accept it? Apparently so. Not many states have given back the ransom cash Washington D.C. ponied up to get us to buy into NCLB. Not many schools have stopped the practice of ranking students. Monthly and weekly publications still sell out copies of the issues that rank colleges, universities, and high schools (NJ is famous for its yearly ranking magazine articles). I think we like it. We are Americans; we are supposed to thrive on competition. The problem is, I don’t see where the competition is taking us. Or maybe I do – and that’s what I can’t tolerate.

As you embark on your journey to school today, I ask you one question. Did you eat your Wheaties?

Author: Michael Parent, Ed.D

Father, husband, school administrator in NJ. "Education cures poverty".

One thought on “It’s About Quality, Not Victory”

  1. Mike,

    Good post. As a fellow Jerseyean, I read your quotes with great interest, as both you district and the other you quote are located reletively close to mine.

    An interesting discussion indeed. On one hand, most of society is focussed on who is “#1”. Look no further than the NFL, NBA, MLB, American Idol, the Iron Chef, Dancing with Stars, and the Oscars. America wants to know who “the best” is, and who is eliminated along the way is entertainment to some.

    Of course, competition breeds many problems. Look no further than the current sports headlines witht he Mitchell Report to see the way individuals respond to the pressures of being #1. For school, Sparks Notes, plaigerism, cell phone text cheating and more are possible illegal off shoots. Tutors, SAT prep classes, and summer enrichment are legal ways kids have been trying to get the “edge” for decades.

    What does this all mean? On one hand, I agree with you that competition causes problems. On the other hand, competition does bring out a desire to push oneself harder if you see value in the competition.

    Our district has eliminated class rank in favor of percentiles. (Top 10%, Top 20%, etc.) While this eliminates grade grubbing for the #3 or #4 rank, competition still exists. I don't think this is the best solution, but eliminating grades isn't either.

    Instead, professionally developing our staffs to see and use grades as a learning tool and not a weapon or diagnosis may be the best way to go.

    Like

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